When we landed in Madrid this past summer, the first thing we did after dropping our suitcases at the apartment was walk to Casa Dani for a pincho de tortilla, a slice of Spain’s traditional, treasured egg-and-potato dish.
Casa Dani is widely considered to serve the best tortilla in the capital city. Or maybe the entire country, if you believe the 2019 jury of the National Tortilla Championship.
It's also wildly popular. Located in the upscale Mercado de la Paz in Madrid’s tony Salamanca district, the restaurant reportedly serves more than 100,000 tortillas a year!
True to form, on the hot July afternoon we wandered in, jet-lagged and hungry, there were lines at the venue's indoor and outdoor locations. We were offered seats at the bar inside, so we grabbed them and ordered tortilla and cañas (glasses of beer), as well as a couple other tapas, and congratulated ourselves on our victory.
Few Ingredients, Many Opinions
Traditional tortilla española or tortilla de patatas has just five ingredients: egg, potato, onion, oil and salt.
Still, they elicit much discussion. Should the eggs remain a little runny? Is it acceptable to exclude onion? How many eggs per potato? How much oil? How best to slice the potatoes? Everyone has an opinion.
According to Tapas Magazine, Casa Dani’s award-winning recipe includes: 1 kilo of Agria potatoes from La Mancha, 8 fresh eggs, onions, sunflower oil and salt. Here are a couple other local recipes from books we keep at home, all with notably vague instructions.
Great tortilla, it seems, is a matter of taste... and maybe some trial and error.
I still think my mother-in-law’s are the best I’ve ever tasted. Teófila had her tortilla down to an art form. She knew exactly how long to let it sit over the gas flame to ensure a slightly crisp exterior and silken interior.
I have many memories of her shuffling around the house while she beat the eggs or running to the kitchen to flip the tortilla (more on this below).
Sometimes during summers in the village, we’d wander out of the hot sun into other families’ kitchens and find another abuela making tortilla with her own special twist.
The kids loved this because they were often treated to a few fried potatoes as a mid-morning snack.
These memories come flooding back to me when I taste homemade tortilla.
5 controversial ingredients -> Fry the potatoes and onions until browned, remove excess oil, gently fold into beaten eggs
I have a long history of flat, dry, burnt and malformed tortillas. You might think a dish with so few ingredients would be relatively easy to make, but this is no ordinary omelette!
My personal error usually involves overcooking, but I’ve also been known to drop the half-cooked tortilla mid-flip, resulting in what I try to pass off as "scrambled tortilla."
For you see, after frying the potatoes and onions, mixing them into the beaten eggs and pouring the mixture into the pan to cook, you have to flip the whole concoction over to cook the other side. This involves gingerly placing a flat dish over the pan, lifting it all up, flipping the half-solid tortilla onto the plate, then sliding the entire thing back into the pan.
Yes, this is as difficult as it sounds. Apparently, two-sided pans exist solely for flipping tortillas, but that just seems like cheating.
Cooking the tortilla evenly on both sides involves a complicated flip procedure midway through the process.
Not As Good As Abuela's
I made tortilla recently. My latest might have been just a little dry for some members of my family, but in terms of size, appearance, consistency and taste, I thought it turned out pretty good.
I used 8 eggs, 2 more than usual, and paired them with 5 large potatoes and one whole onion. This will be my new approach because the quantities tasted just right.
It's a far cry from one of my first tortilla efforts in our early days in Madrid, when I didn't realize you had to peel the potatoes!
Here are a few basic tips I’ve picked up over the years (if you’ve made tortilla, please add your own in the comments below!):
🐣 Figure out the right amount of oil for your taste – you want enough so the potatoes and onions sauté nicely, but not so much that the final product feels greasy or fried. Sometimes I have to pour some out once the potatoes are done, leaving just enough to coat the bottom of the pan.
🐣 Add the fried potato-onion mixture gently into the beaten eggs before pouring it all into the frying pan, not the reverse. Using a slotted spoon or spatula will help you avoid scooping up too much oil.
🐣 Some people cook the first side at high heat then turn the heat off after flipping. Teófila, I believe, cooked her tortillas at low heat on both sides for quite a long time (the oil would deliciously bubble up the sides of the pan and the enticing aroma would waft out the front door to the street).
🐣 Sometimes we make "false tortillas" using crushed-up potato chips. In Spain, pre-packaged tortillas are enticingly convenient (my favorite comes from the swanky El Corte Inglés supermarket, but I’m not above discount grocer Mercadona’s version either).
🐣 You can eat tortilla at any temperature – cold, room temp or still steaming. You can also eat it any time of the day – for breakfast, lunch, snack or dinner. It’s a standard tapas option and really one of the most versatile dishes around.
What's your comfort food? What dishes elicit the most memories for you?